The river sounded wide and fast flowing. This was far from ideal, but Thais had little alternative. She had walked all morning and all afternoon with a sore dry throat. The girl had not seen nor heard a river until now. If she didn’t face the dangers of the water then she would die of thirst anyway. There was no safe option and so with a newfound courage the girl stalked determinedly through the trees and the undergrowth towards the river. Should she meet one of them by the water’s edge then so be it, she could not hope to avoid them much longer.
With every step the girl took she strained her ears for signs that she had been found out, but luckily only the rabble of the stream flowed out of the usual sounds of the woods. The trees thinned, leaving the heavy giants behind and making way for the young saplings and the shrubs. Thais found herself under the bright sky for the first time in three days and the sight of the sun high up in the cold sky brought an involuntary smile to the girl’s face.
Ahead of her the river loomed. It was dotted with heavy boulders and seemed punctuated by patches of deep fast-flowing water. With wide eyes Thais looked around uncertainly, seeking out an ambush. Yet she found nothing to suggest she was about to fall into one. Her throat protested with a fiery urgency for the cool fresh water. She needed a drink.
As though a fire had been set beneath her feet Thais dashed forward loosening the flask from her pack and one of her blade’s from her waist as she did so. The water was so cold it paralysed the girl when she dropped into it on her knees, her right hand sinking low to fill the leather flask. The first gulps felt so delightful Thais leaned her head back and dared shut her eyes for a second or two.
The word parched didn’t do her throat justice the child felt amusedly, revelling in the icy trickle filling her stomach with a pool of water. The flask was emptied fully down the girl’s throat before she filled it up once more. The effect of quenching her thirst had left the girl energised and it was with a happy smile that she looked up.
The creature was upon her before she could stop it or even raise her weapon. Jagged claws ripped through her thick clothing and skin while sharp teeth sought out Thais’ skinny neck. The girl frantically struggled beneath the tall thin animal. Her screams came to nothing under the water while her fingers slid off the smooth slimy skin of the greyman. For so thin a creature it had frightening strength and while she lay suffocating beneath the surface of the river Thais fought in vein to throw it off. There was nothing to hold onto for greymen wore no clothes and grew no fur. They were smooth slimy wet creatures, festering within reach of the Agea’s many rivers and streams feasting on the skin of any living creature that came their way. Thais’ feet kicked fruitlessly against the slippery rocks of the river bed, seeking to find any footing that might free herself from her attacker.
A vision of the rabbit carcass swam before Thais’ drowning eyes and with a vehement indignation that she not follow in its wake the girl finally found a submerged rock and used it to launch herself off with a strong kick. Spluttering and coughing Thais emerged above the water line and scrambled back onto the bank scrabbling round in the undergrowth for her belongings. Her eyes met the furious yellow gaze of the slimy beast, which opened its lipless human-like mouth to reveal row upon row of small-serrated teeth. It shrieked at the youngster and moved with terrifying speed towards the girl only to find the princess shriek back and reach for a small sack of white powder. Thais waited with a racing heart until the monster had come close enough, before she lunged the contents of the small bag in its face.
The greyman cried out in agony, falling back from the panting child. It dropped to the ground, its hands coming up to its injured face. Thais grimaced as she watched the slimy dark grey skin bubbling and burning, melting away beneath the salt. She had always known how best to protect herself from a greyman attack, yet had never seen the effects before. The sight of the dying writhing creature was enough to make the girl wretch.
Finally the dying beast lay still, its limp arms falling away from the remnants of its face. Thais whimpered when she saw the skin had completely fallen away leaving a bloody mess in its wake, which still bubbled and hissed around the edges. She spared no time and grabbed her belongings before sprinting away from the river. The fell beast’s shrieks would have alerted more of its kind and she had every desire to be as far from the waterside as she could before they arrived. Just how she had let that one sneak up on her was a shameful thing and something Thais would no doubt punish herself for more than she deserved.
For an hour the girl ran before she finally felt light headed and stopped suddenly. She was in a small clearing, back in the territory of one of the gangs and therefore safe from the foul beasts by the river.
“You bloody fool,” the girl cursed before she dropped down onto a rock and pushed her bruised and cut fingers up to her hot face to hide herself. “Bloody stupid fool!”
She could not of course hide herself from herself.
“Why do you always do that?” her father’s voice lingered in Thais’ memory as she remembered a time not so long ago, in a place a very long way away. The girl had looked up from her scroll, her fingers covered in ink and her work smudged. Thais had thought herself to be alone in the library.
In her memory Gallus smiled quizzically and sat down opposite the girl at the long ancient wooden bench. He recognised the dusty tome open at her side; it was a daunting read even for an academic and he wondered what the girl was doing with it.
“We all make mistakes little one,” he had simply said; his smile had been so genuine and his expression so sincere that Thais had dropped her quill and adopted a smug expression.
“Well what if I don’t want to make mistakes?” she had quipped eliciting a chuckle from her father.
“Then you will be in for a life of disappointment.” In the safety of the library and under her father’s gaze Thais had rolled her eyes and smiled fondly at the king. Would it be that he were here to offer much needed words of encouragement now.
“Stop it,” a voice escaped from Thais’ lips, only it was deeper more guttural than her own. “You killed it didn’t you? Stop feeling so sorry for yourself!”
Her common sense rather cruelly sorted out her hurt pride and quite suddenly Thais was on her feet again. The foul beasts had not been left far behind. There simply wasn’t time for idling the day away cursing herself with every foul word she could remember.
The next time you see a greyman you’ll deal with it properly, the bold girl thought to herself as she started walking away from the direction of the river. They’re not hard to kill. After all, they’re incredibly stupid.
In all honesty, when Thais had asserted these sentiments she hadn’t thought she would be doing so so soon. Far away a scream sounded, wafting through the trees from the way Thais had come. It was a woman’s scream. Her human pain was suddenly accompanied by the ghastly shrieking of the kinsmen of the beast just felled and without thinking Thais burst into a run. Where most sensible people might have run away from the danger, especially considering the traumatic events Thais had just survived, the young girl instead ran back, her heart in her throat. She had been the one to upset the greymen. She had been the one to lure them towards the human settlement. She couldn’t simply let them fend for themselves.
The cry sounded once more, words discernable amidst the fear and this time the wail of two children accompanied the woman. With a hardened brow Thais sprinted through the trees with increased urgency, her left hand gripping the worn leather handle of her bow with increased fervour, her right hand waiting with increased alertness to grasp a feathered arrow from her quiver and take aim.
Fresh ghostly tracks led the girl toward the commotion in a matter of minutes. As she approached she slowed to a stalk and crept from well-concealed tree to well-concealed tree in an effort to retain the element of surprise; what little surprise there was left of course. Greymen, though frighteningly fast, were sufficiently slow-witted to anticipate counterattack when they themselves were on the prowl. As long as Thais remained hidden she would find little trouble in dealing with the beasts, now that she was prepared at least. Many times had the youngster fought and bested the foul creatures by taking them thoroughly by surprise. With any other foe Thais might have conceived her strategy as cowardice, but given her enemy’s advantage in their lightning speed she conceded herself her advantage in being able to outwit them.
Finding shelter behind an enormous Kaba tree Thais paused. Her keen ears alerted her to the fact that she had reached the scene of the commotion and after taking several deep breaths she stole a glance around the side of the tree. A glance was all the girl needed and quickly she pulled back. Three of them. Two looting the baskets of food carried by the woman and a third stalking the woman herself as she shielded her two young children.
“Please!” the terrified woman was shrieking, her fear snaking through her voice and degrading her to sobbed utterances. “Please take what you will, but leave my children. I beg of you!”
A snarl was all that came in response. It was certainly rare to come across a greyman of sufficient intelligence to learn a human language, yet rarer still was a greyman of sufficient intelligence and a willingness to listen. Notoriously vile-mannered, greymen had little interest in the people of the Agea save but the skin on their backs.
The woman’s tearful shrieks were too much for Thais to bear, who waited but a moment before she spun from her hiding place, an arrow cocked and aimed for the greyman circling the petrified family. Its fall to the ground was met by indignant shrill screeches by the remaining two, yet before they could pinpoint the source of the attack one of them lay dying on the ground, a royal arrow protruding through its chest. This second attack enabled the third and final creature to locate Thais and within seconds it was upon her. The girl had anticipated this however, and as soon as she had let her second arrow fly she had ripped her twin blades from their sheaths. Keeping them low at her sides she waited for the wiry tall creature to vault towards her, its teeth snarling, its strong arms ready to rip the child apart. A wave of foul stench preceded the greyman in its attack and at the very last moment Thais parried from its path, raising her blades in a double pronged attack.
A foul howl rose into the treetops as the greyman felt the elven metal tear at its flesh and after it had come to a stop it stared in wonder at its arm, hanging by mere bloody tendrils from the shoulder. Fury filled its twisted human-like face before it fled into the woods quicker than Thais’ eyes could follow.
“Hurry,” she called out, diving into the clearing and lifting the woman’s basket from the floor. “You live near here?”
“My dear child! I thank you from the bottom…”
“Don’t thank me now. We must find shelter. That one will be back any moment with more of its kind than I’m able to hold off. They will already be massing, I killed one by the river just now. So please, you have a settlement near here don’t you? Yours were the tracks I found a while back?”
“Yes, we live very close,” the woman explained, gathering her wits about her in the face of more danger. “I will lead the way.”
At a run the woman, carrying the younger of her small children, led the way along a well-trodden path towards an array of torch lights in the distance. Thais’ keen ears could hear the calls of greymen at their rear and for the briefest of moments she feared for what might happen should they catch them before they could find sanctity. The youngster had fought twelve such creatures and lived to tell the tale before, but that had been in the company of her allies in arms: Kaio and Rachel.
“Not far now,” the woman called back while she ran. Thais’ eyes were following the little boy stumbling in his mother’s wake. “We’re nearly there. Come on Kristoff, only a little further.”
A final stumble and Kristoff had fallen to the ground. The makings of a wail formed on his lips before quite suddenly his upset was replaced by wild-eyed terror. Thais did not need to turn round to know the greymen were upon them and despite her own wildly beating heart she stooped low and dragged the boy from the ground. With one arm half-dragging, half-lifting the child and the other brandishing a blade ready to defend herself Thais pushed herself as desperately as she was able towards the oncoming fighters approaching them from the torch-lit settlement. Men brandishing shields and spears were racing out to meet them, but by the fast approaching cackles in their wake Thais knew they would need another minute to reach them; a minute she did not have.
Without a choice the girl dropped Kristoff to the ground and turned feeling something rip agonisingly in her knee. She ignored the fire in her leg and lifted her blades ready for the onslaught that was seconds from her back. Aius’ good grace must have been smiling on her, for at her timely moment of turning a greyman gutted itself upon the longest of the curved blades. Kristoff wailed while Thais lifted her second blade to fend off the wild scratching attack of one of the foul creature’s kin. Deathly yellow eyes met Thais’ dark ones while she wielded her weapons, artfully fending off the attacks of the forerunners. In the distance she could see a swathe of dark glistening bodies; there were too many for her to fight.
“Be gone with you!” she cried out hoarse and fierce as another of the greymen came to a messy end upon the end of her blade. The mass were upon her and with all her valour Thais merely shut her eyes tightly and threw herself down on the crying little boy.
“Run!” Thais kept her eyes tightly shut and felt she imagined the man’s deep-throated call. For a moment it sounded as though Gallus the King had ordered her to move, leaving the girl in no doubt that she had passed on to the next realm. However, even her tightly shut eyes couldn’t ignore the firm hand dragging her to her feet.“Are you deaf girl? I said run.” The youngster lifted wide eyes to the face of a stern warrior and with a meek nod she obeyed, lifting the crying Kristoff from the ground as she went. While a bitter attack waged around her Thais ran from the fighting with her charge to the edge of the torch-lit settlement high up in the trees. The woman Thais had saved appeared as through from nowhere to shepherd the girl towards a rope ladder well guarded by a small group of burly warriors. Kristoff was taken from her arms and with a racing heart Thais climbed, her eyes never leaving the blurry torch lights up ahead. A platform was nearing, it was within reach, concerned faces filled the child’s vision before quite suddenly they swam into a pool of light and dark before nothingness filled the edges of Thais’ consciousness.